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De Niro: bad dad, good cop; Victorian passion; French Hitch.

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Robert De Niro slows it down a little in the ultraconventional cop thriller City By the Sea. He plays Vincent LaMarca, a veteran Manhattan officer with two skeletons in his closet: one in the form of a father, the other a son.

When Vincent was a child, his father was executed for the kidnapping and accidental death of a rich family's baby. Vincent was taken in by the arresting officer on that case and raised with a strict sense of honor, eventually joining the NYPD himself. Vincent, close to retirement, enjoys a predictable, unchallenging life, the rewards of a distinguished career on the force, and a safely noncommital relationship with his downstairs neighbor (Frances McDormand). Vincent's routine gets shaken up when a dead drug dealer with a Long Beach, Long Island, driver's license washes up on the banks of his turf. Vincent has painful memories of Long Beach, once a bustling tourist haven and now a decaying, beachfront ghost town. There, he has an ex-wife (Patti LuPone) and a young adult son (James Franco) he left years ago, and he hasn't looked back -- until today. It turns out that his son Joey, now a desperate junkie, is connected with the death, and Vincent must balance his duty to the force and his guilt as an abandoning father to see that justice is done.

If this all sounds familiar, there are two reasons. City By the Sea is based on a true story that was first highlighted in a 1997 Esquire article by Mike McAlary. Also, the plot is not unlike several you may have seen brought to life as TV movies. There is certainly nothing surprising here, except maybe De Niro's understated performance. It is an exercise in restraint. There are many upsetting turns in Vincent's life: the murder charge against his son, confronting his ex-wife again, unexpected relations, and another murder. He almost never loses his cool. Perhaps it is from years of repressing the pain of losing his father to the electric chair, the shame of living under the shadow of a murderer, and the guilt of leaving his family. De Niro navigates this emotional turf skillfully, with an almost bland detachment, until the climactic confrontation, when the stakes are at their highest and he can't push it all away anymore.

It's a sad day in Hollywood when grade-A actresses like Frances McDormand have to accept roles as girlfriends in paint-by-numbers police dramas (see also the wonderful Anjelica Huston in this season's Blood Work -- or, rather, don't see it). McDormand makes the most of it and brings some honest gravity to Vincent's need to do right by his son, but you can't help but feel like she should be doing something worthier of her time. Delightful, though, is seeing Patti LuPone in a major film. Underrated as a screen presence, she brings some much-needed, responsible fire as Vincent's long-suffering ex-wife.

Most interesting in City By the Sea is the young James Franco, who won an Emmy playing James Dean in a TV biopic. He's very compelling as the good boy gone wrong, and his youthful defiance and rage at his abandonment are skillfully contrasted with De Niro's measured and tenuous authority. Franco, incidentally, looks a lot like James Dean, and director Michael Caton-Jones goes a little overboard in making his Joey smolderingly sullen and hopeless. In fact, the film kind of reads like a Young Method Actor In Training showcase, with De Niro as the wizened guru and Franco as the attentive pupil. There's angst aplenty. There are several shots of Joey ambling woefully down the Long Beach boardwalk accompanied by slow, mournful, bluesy jazz music and longing for love or drugs. Audience members can amuse themselves by paying close attention when the musical score switches gears from Vincent scenes (traditional movie background -- violins, etc.) to Joey scenes (gritty hip hop or the mournful jazz). Once they have the pattern straight -- and it is very noticeable -- observe the moment when the pattern is disrupted and the jazz follows Vincent on his own sullen trip down the boardwalk. It's fun! But it shows exactly how conventional this well-produced, well-acted film turns out to be. -- Bo List

My roommate, Chris Arnold, is directing Neil LaBute's The Shape Of Things at the University of Memphis this fall. So, in preparation for writing this review for LaBute's film Possession, I asked for his well-researched take on what makes LaBute tick. His written response:

"Neil LaBute honestly examines the ugly truth of male/female relationships. Part of the excitement of a relationship is finding a way to compromise the inevitable battle of the sexes, but LaBute ignores this compromise. In Possession, LaBute shows this issue is timeless with the two relationships he explores."

Thanks, Chris. Anyway, Possession is a story about two courtships -- one inspiring the other. Roland Michell (Aaron Eckhart) is an earthy American visiting England on fellowship to study the Victorian poetry of the late, great Randolph Henry Ash, whose work is being celebrated upon its centenary. Ash was noted for having only one great love -- his wife -- but in a routine visit to the library, Roland discovers an original Ash love letter, addressed only to "Madam," that would suggest there was another object of his affection. Prime suspect: Christabel LaMotte, freethinking prefeminist and -- gasp! -- lesbian. Roland takes his theory to the icy, skeptical LaMotte expert (and descendant) Maud Bailey (Gwyneth Paltrow). Bailey would like nothing more than to quash Michell's recklessly American ideas but soon embroils herself in unraveling the mystery as they discover more old letters and retrace the hypothetical steps of the lovers from a century ago. They have competition: Ruthless colleagues and an on-again/off-again suitor of Maud's would love nothing more than to confirm this discovery, and it's a race against time -- present and past -- to find all of the right clues to authenticate the find. Along the way, amidst all of that sexy poetry and repressed British sensuality, Roland and Maud find themselves attracted to each other, and their scholarly adventures heighten the excitement of their hesitant courtship -- and vice versa.

I didn't like this movie very much on the whole. I was utterly absorbed when traveling back in time and seeing Ash and LaMotte (Jeremy Northam and Jennifer Ehle) engaged in their delicate seductions but checked my watch incessantly during the bland and awkward mating dance of the two present-day academics. Maybe this is the point: that while we 21st centurions pat ourselves on the back for progress and civilization, we haven't learned a damn thing about matters of the heart. Nor have we excelled at expressing ourselves through language. Roland's and Maud's inarticulate musings and confessions pale next to the elegance and sheer beauty of the exchanges between Ash and LaMotte.

Eckhart stretches plausibility as a researcher of poetry. He comes off like a cowboy -- out of place and in over his head. And while his boyish, toothy charm contrasts nicely with The Gwyneth (utterly believable as the snitty ice queen), he never quite makes the grade as a person passionate about poetry. He seems so entirely focused on disarming Maud's aloofness that we never quite see a man in love with words, as the situation suggests.

The real show, again, is Ash and LaMotte. Northam hauntingly underplays Ash as a man of very gently expressed passions. No Byron, he. This is a necessary key to believing that a man famous for loving only his wife could develop a passion for another woman. His performance has a masculine softness, encouraging our belief that he can charm LaMotte, famous for loving only women. In turn, Ehle's LaMotte has a wry smile that would make Mona Lisa blush.

LaBute, director and adapter (after A.S. Byatt's prize-winning novel) also seems more interested in the past. The period cinematography is more attentive and flattering, and the relationship between the two poets seems spontaneously calculated down to the glance. This is a different kind of film for LaBute, known for his harsh and intense looks at the contemporary gender war. His work on Possession is a bit more like his direction of Nurse Betty which sought as much to bend the differences between reality and fantasy as this film does to bend past and present and the passions that transcend them altogether. -- BL

The winner of the French equivalent of the Oscar for best actress, best screenplay, and best sound, Read My Lips is a postfeminist take on a classic noir outline: A mild-mannered young woman meets a rugged ex-con and leaves her humdrum middle-class existence for a life of crime. But

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